Politics & Government

Judge could decide wording on Tacoma charter amendments

A veritable who’s who of former Tacoma leaders have lined up to protest the language of four Tacoma charter amendments on the ballot this fall.

The briefs, filed in Pierce County Superior Court on Friday, say voters could be confused by the language on the ballot items, and that the titles and explanations are too long.

A judge could resolve the conflicts as early as Thursday. Tacoma City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said none of the issues would be stricken from the ballot altogether.

The four charter amendments are the most controversial of 12 proposed changes to the city charter that the City Council has approved placing on the November ballot.

One would extend term limits for City Council members who hope to also serve as mayor; a second would create a citizen salary commission for elected positions; a third would require the council to confirm all department heads selected by the city manager; and a fourth would require the council to confirm the employment of the utility director every two years.

The allowable number of words may boil down to a discrepancy in county and state law. Pierce County code says ballot titles must be 10 words or fewer, and the description must be 75 words or fewer. However, state law, which the plaintiffs cite in their briefs, says each ballot explanation of an issue cannot be longer than 30 words.

Tacoma City Council members Ryan Mello and Anders Ibsen say they’re confident the ballot language will stand up to legal scrutiny.

Ibsen said the council struggled over the exact wording and the city’s attorneys carefully vetted the ballot language.

“I think the (opponents’) motivation here, in my opinion, probably has a lot more to do with not wanting these things to pass rather than concerns over legal verbiage,” he said.

Pauli said the law allows certain words to not count toward the final number. For instance, each issue must say which jurisdiction placed it on the ballot, so the words “city of Tacoma” would not count toward the 10-word total.

Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson said ballot titles are not challenged often, but when they are, judges can rule on new language on the spot or ask the two parties to rewrite the language together.

Those objecting to the wording are former mayors Harold Moss, Karen Vialle and Mike Crowley; former City Manager James Walton; former council members Jack Warnick, Ed Hudson, Tom Stenger, Dawn Lucien and Peter Rasmussen; City Club founder Lily Warnick; and Tacoma residents Lyle Quasim and Sherry Bockwinkel.

Vialle said she thinks ballot titles regarding confirmation of the utility director and the salary commission could mislead voters.

“If we are going to put all of this stuff on the ballot, let’s make sure (the ballot titles) are clear,” Vialle said.

Some of her allies also object to the content of the proposed charter amendments.

Quasim, for instance, said he believes the City Council shouldn’t have a say in who the city manager selects as a department head.

And Moss said term limits are needed because the occasional power of elected office is “seductive.”

Four of those objecting — Moss, Stenger, Lucien and Crowley — are also serving on committees tasked with writing language against the proposed charter amendments for the voter’s guide.